Love Wins: Rob Bell and the New Evangelicals (by Derek Flood)
Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins has gotten a LOT of media attention, debuting at #2 on the NY Times Best Seller List, and making the cover of Time Magazine. The back of Bell’s book has a quote from Andy Crouch in the New York Times where he writes, “Rob Bell is a central figure for his generation and for the way that evangelicals are likely to do church in the next twenty years.” Yet to others, Bell has left the evangelical fold all together. John Piper declared as much with the tweet “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Similarly, many liberals are wondering what the difference is between what Bell says and good old liberal Christianity? Lisa Miller of Newsweek asks Bell in a recent interview “Aren’t you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical?” I’d like to offer a response to that question here. I don’t pretend to speak for Rob here.
This is my own answer to why I continue to identify as evangelical:
The controversy with Bell’s book has to do with the doctrinal claims it makes. So those who have spoken out against it are doing so based on saying that it says things that are wrong. The focus is on Truth with a big T, on authoritative doctrinal correctness. This focus on black and white right or wrongness is also characteristic of how traditional evangelicals understand morality and ethics. Their focus is on the “thou shalt nots,” i.e. on opposing certain behavior that they see as immoral. So they say X is wrong, and people who practice X are a threat to the to moral fabric of our society. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks yourself. On the other hand you have the way that liberal Christians do morality and ethics. Instead of being focused on right and wrong, their focus is on compassion. This does not mean that everything is okay. They would insist that many things are really hurtful and bad, but that our response should be one of grace: We should be seeking rehabilitation and reconciliation, not retribution.
Now as far as that goes, I definitely fall into the liberal camp, which begs the question: aren’t you just a liberal Mainliner then? As far as this broad approach of compassion goes, I am. But there is something crucial that is missing here: I do not think that Christianity is primarily about affirming certain doctrines or adopting a certain set of ethical principles. It is about having a personal life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. That focus on relationship with God is and always has been the core of evangelical faith. That is the gospel. This is what being born again is all about. It is the foundation from which all Christian ethics stems.
What I would like to propose is that a focus on compassion and personal relationship with God go hand in hand because experiencing God’ grace first hand ought to lead us to show it to others. From that, I would like to propose that what makes a new evangelical is that we retain the focus on a living transforming relationship with God, but that we have a way of thinking about theology, and of ethics which is rooted in compassion and grace. Rob begins his dialog with Lisa Miller with a brief sermonette where he says that we have “lost the plot” of the gospel which he defines simply as “God is love and sent Jesus to show us this love, that we might know this love, and extend it to others.” There’s that focus on relationship again: “Knowing God’s love,” and there it is right alongside of a focus on compassion “and extend it to others.”
I want to stress that I do not want to say here that doctrine or morality are unimportant. I think they are tremendously important in fact, and I’m sure Rob does too. I also am not saying I agree with everything Rob Bell says in his book. I disagree with him on a lot of things (which I think is a good and healthy thing). But what I see him doing primarily is recognizing as a pastor that people are being hurt by the way these doctrines present God, and wanting to address that hurt. His is a pastoral focus rather than an exegetical one (in other words a relational focus, rather than a detached intellectual one), and I think it is in fact a much more important focus to have when interpreting the Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without that pastoral/relational focus, it is not possible to do proper exegesis. In many ways, to be a so-called “new evangelical” is to get that.
Derek Flood is a writer, artist, theologian, and troublemaker. He holds a masters in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological Union, and is part of the core faculty at the Academy of Art University. You can follow his blog at www.theRebelGod.com.